Why Do We Protest? The Building Block of a Better Answer

If protests are wrong, and they are, we need a better alternative. To find it, we need to realize that protests come down to one issue, a felt lack of voice.  Fleshing out how that lack of voice bubbles over into protest, we can see why we need an alternative that provides enough voice to all that we could then discourage protests.

Giving Voice, In the Right Measure

One legitimate reason to protest with marches or even riots is suppression. A group being denied its right to be heard has only protest as a reasonable response. But as I showed last time, in the world today, that is an unfortunate, unfair, and undemocratic strategy.  What we need instead is a way to ensure that everyone is heard.

At the same time, we want to be sure they are heard proportionately. When a thousand people protested in a town of ten thousand in the 1800s, they had the right to expect more of an impact than if those same thousand people were protesting in today’s world. Or even ten million people, if they’re spread across a country with a population many times that.

We need a new mechanism for registering people’s concerns, one that gives a voice to everyone, that makes sure that all people are heard, but also ensures that they are heard to the extent they deserve. Even one voice out of two hundred fifty million deserves a hearing, but with the volume appropriate to one voice out of two hundred fifty million.

Protesters throw this out of whack, but so do lobbyists, who are paid to—and succeed at– pushing an agenda out of proportion to the support that agenda has in the populace at large.  As we look for a way to do a better job at hearing people, we also need to do a better job at not hearing people.

Bringing Issues to Light

The urge to protest can come from one other source, when an issue isn’t yet even on the public’s radar.  If a race of people is being mistreated, if a global hazard is being allowed to fester without response, if a religion is being persecuted, and the authorities are ignoring it or refusing to deal with it, what to do? Today, we have blogs and the like, ways of seeking virality so that an issue catches public attention.

But that’s no better than protests in its logical underpinnings—do we want the entry-standard for caring about an issue to be that it find a champion creative or persistent enough to capture the world’s attention? If I’m right in what I’m writing right now, do we want it to be ignored unless I find someone who knows how to make an entrancing movie about the need for a new way of bringing issues to public attention?

It’s a flaw Plato pointed out: there’s no obvious connection between the skill at engaging public attention and emotion and the ability to identify society’s most pressing needs. Few of us would endorse his solution, censoring artists and putting them to work for the government, but the problem is no less real: how do all segments of society get better at identifying our most important concerns, and respond to them in a way approaching the right proportion for the seriousness and urgency of each problem?

I remember from my West Wing days being fascinated by the range of problems that came across the president’s desk—and the even wider range his advisers had to sift through, to bring only the right ones to the president’s crowded desk.

The Search for Solutions Starts with Recognizing the Problem

I’ve already suggested a version of my answer, and I’ll redo it here, in a different form, next week.  Before I do, I think it’s worth sitting with the question, absorbing the question itself. I know that one reader from last week simply disagreed, thought that if people are unhappy, a protest is fine, and that each protester likely has many people backing him or her.

It hurts civil discourse, is the problem. Protests are almost always small, proportionate to the population. The Soviet Jewry rallies of my youth were thrilled at a turnout of 250,000, which was maybe three percent of the city of New York at the time (and people came from farther for those rallies).  Do we want our public discourse ruled by whatever groups can put together three percent of the population?

Think of the impact on others.  To see a small group of people launch a protest, and have it succeed at whatever it wanted, either sends the message that we should all be shouting about whatever bothers us, getting our small groups into the public eye, or that we live in a society where some people get their way when they don’t deserve it, while we don’t get our way even when we do. Unless we’re willing to make a fuss.

Democracy started out as a way for everyone to be heard, and for society to take all of our beliefs, opinions, and concerns into account, to the extent possible. As the world has grown, as we try to navigate the needs and wants of ever-larger numbers of people, the complications of doing that have grown as well.  But we remain stuck with our old mainstays, protest in all its forms, yielding the field to whoever is most adept at catching others’ attention.

Next time: a modest proposal for how we might do it more fairly and more efficiently.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.